Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Common Cause

In my last entry I wrote about Casablanca (1942) as an example of wartime propaganda, about how the film enacted the ideological need to value (public) duty over (individual) desire, which corresponded to the wartime need for sexual abstinence and fidelity. I don’t claim any originality in this insight, as I think the film’s ideological purpose, given the virtue of “20/20” hindsight, is rather “obvious” in this regard, as many critics have observed. However, it occurred to me that it is probably worth mentioning that the film, seen also with the clarity of hindsight, also enacts America’s wartime sense of ideological purposelessness. Historian Paul Fussell, in Wartime, argues that the reason why Americans fought the Germans was even less clear than why they were fighting the Japanese (the reason for fighting the latter was revenge against the attack on Pearl Harbor). Although Victor Laszlo refers to Nazi concentration camps when addressing the Nazi military commander, Major Strasser, the death camps were not widely known about in the late summer of 1942 when the film was made, as the U. S. government had downplayed the brutality of Nazi anti-Semitism before the war. Hence there’s no clear sense of the nature or extent of Nazi criminality in Casablanca—they are, simply, the villains. Major Strasser seems confident that the victory of the Third Reich is inevitable. He and his fellow officers sing one (traditional) German folk song in the film, and his villainy is defined by whatever sort of (undefined) act of brutality he perpetrates on his captive, Ugarte (Peter Lorre). Victor Laszlo is wanted by the Nazis because he is a resistance leader fighting Nazi tyranny, and hence is a figurehead (but not a Jewish one). He has been tortured (as indicated by his reference to the “more persuasive methods” used when he was a prisoner in a concentration camp), but the word “torture” is never used. (The question of whether Ugarte is tortured is unclear, but his death is highly suspicious. He was murdered, but was he tortured? We're never explicitly told.) When Rick has finally made his decision to help Laszlo (and Ilsa) escape from Casablanca by giving them the "Letters of Transit" to board the plane to Lisbon, Laszlo praises Rick’s return “to the fight”—they are now fighting on the same side, for the same cause. In his chapter in Wartime entitled “The Ideological Vacuum,” Fussell argues that since Americans didn’t have a positive reason for fighting the war, they fell back on sheer pragmatism—the belief that “common cause would somehow substitute for formulation of purpose or meaning” (139). Hence Rick is told by Laszlo, “this time I know our side will win,” meaning they are now fighting together for a common cause. They are now on the same “side,” but there still remains, to use Fussell's phraseology, an “ideological vacuum.” Outside of common cause, there remains no clear purpose or meaning in fighting the war.

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